Wednesday, March 21, 2012

book review: There but for the by Ali Smith

The backstory: There but for the is longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.

The basics: Ali Smith imagines a man comes to a dinner party as a guest of another and stays. He takes salt, pepper and his silverware to their guest room, where they then begin to slide narrow food under the door to him.

My thoughts: While the set up to the story is intriguing, it immediately begs many questions. Why not break the door down? Why not call the police? Smith addresses these issues with some success, but it's safe to say practicality may not be the point in this hyper-realistic novel. I felt it to be both in the real world and outside of it, and this tension was fascinating.

This novel is split into four sections: There, but, for, and the. Each section is wildly different in tone and character, but they do all form a somewhat cohesive whole. The first section was perhaps my favorite, as it sets the tone for the novel. It's an introduction into the world of this novel, which felt both real and unreal at times:
"Imagine the relief there’d be, in just stepping through the door of a spare room, a room that wasn’t anything to do with you, and shutting the door, and that being that. There’d be a window, wouldn’t there? Were there any books in there? What would you do all day? What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after hour after hour of no words. Would you speak to yourself? Would words just stop being useful? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more, would they start to mean in every direction, all somersault and assault, like a thuggery of fireworks? Would they proliferate, like untended plantlife? Would the inside of your head overgrow with every word that has ever come into it, every word that has ever silently taken seed or fallen dormant? Would your own silence make other things noisier? Would all the things you’d ever forgotten, all layered there inside you, come bouldering up and avalanche you?"
Did Ali Smith just make me think fondly of going to a dinner party and locking myself in a bedroom? See, she's brilliant. One of the best parts of this novel was the experience going on inside my own head as I read it. 'What is she doing?' I'd think. 'How will this section come back around.' 'Ah....' It's a curious novel, and it's one I have a hard time thinking of in parts now that the parts have formed a whole. It's smart. It's funny. It's wise. It's curious. There's an air of loneliness and sadness at times too. This novel is both so many things and so few, and it's one that must be experienced for itself.

Favorite passage:  "Google is so strange. It promises everything, but everything isn’t there. You type in the words for what you need, and what you need becomes superfluous in an instant, shadowed instantaneously by the things you really need, and none of them answerable by Google."

The verdict: While I am undeniably in awe of Ali Smith and this work of literature on a critical level, I must confess I don't actually love it on a personal level. I was more intrigued with the idea of what she was doing as a writer. It's a fascinating meta novel, but it's one I'd only recommend to serious readers fascinated with construction and unique ideas of what a novel can be.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: September 13, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy There but for the from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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18 comments:

  1. Interesting subject but something I'd be less likely to pick up. I'm only vaguely aware of Smith's work. Have you read any others?

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    1. I haven't, but I'm intrigued by her as a writer.

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  2. I won a copy of this book and I am dying to read it!

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    1. Ti, I can't wait to hear your thoughts on this one!

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  3. Wow I am intrigued. I am always interesting in what the future of the novel will hold and this sounds like a possibility, if that makes sense.

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    1. Absolutely! I'm fascinated by the future of the novel too, even as I confess sometimes I prefer mine to be more 'traditional.'

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  4. In the UK we have something called the squatters right. Don't ask me but it is a right. See wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squatting
    I suppose someone who wrote that passage on google is not using the right keyword. I rely on google everyday and I got what I need, very quickly. :-) Thanks for the review.

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    1. JoV--I use Google every day too, but I think Smith was alluding to the greater questions of humanity and meaning of life. I haven't found those in Google yet, but I have in novels:-)

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  5. I completely loved this book, and I'm happy to hear that you enjoyed it as well. It does require that the reader stop demanding plot development, but it is so worth it if one is willing to do that. Ali Smith is a genius, methinks. :)

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    1. I am firmly in agreement on Ali Smith's genius. I'm eager to read her other titles too!

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  6. Now I am conflicted. I do want to read this one, but I am not all that much of a fan of the meta novel, and experimental writing. It seems like a really neat concept, but I am unsure how I would react to it. In the end, I think I will go ahead and take a chance on it. Thanks for the great review!

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    1. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts, Zibilee. While it was somewhat experimental, there are also some fascinating characters.

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  7. Well now this book certainly sounds unusual! I have read one of Smith's novels and I've always meant to read more. Perhaps I shall try this one ...

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    1. It is unusual and interesting! I'm curious to see read more of her work and see how much is her and how much is this novel itself.

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  8. This is the reason I'm not reading this book despite reading almost all of the other long-listed books - I'm just not interested in meta-fiction and being experimental. I want a good story!

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    1. Then it sounds like you're smart to steer clear of this one, Sam! It's certainly not for everyone. Hope you find some great reads on the longlist!

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  9. This book sounds right up my alley. I love quirky, unusual books. I'll be keeping my eye out for this one!

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    1. Then I think you'd love it, Ryan! It's a quirky book, and there are some particularly quirky characters!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!